Feel It In Your Bones

Creating Inspiration in Student Writing

I’d been with working Zoe for over a week on her idea for the This I Believe essay. She immediately gravitated toward a topic but struggled with her structure. After one conversation, her eyes lit up as she uttered, “I’m gonna try something.” Those are perhaps my favorite words to hear from students… until the next words Zoe would offer me.

I continued conferencing with other students but kept one eye on Zoe in the corner of the room who was busily typing. At a break between conferences, she waved me over to her computer to look at what she had written.

I didn’t have time to spare from conferencing, but I could sense her enthusiasm. So I relented. As I read over her shoulder, I was excited to see her draft — it was original but raw. I immediately praised it and asked her if she could see the improvement in her writing.

She clutched her chest, smiled, and said, “I feel it in my bones. My hands can’t keep up with my thoughts.”

I feel it in my bones.

Do you remember the last time writing was in your bones? The last time the certainty of the message you had to deliver was so strong that your hands could not keep up with your mind?

I actually do. But I’m guessing students taking an essay writing class in high school don’t often feel this. For Zoe, however, a semester of work came together in that moment.

It is at this point in the semester that my greatest successes and failures are typically revealed. For some students, writing makes sense finally — the epiphanies are rolling: they feel it in their bones. But for others, I see them shutting down, tapping out, doing bare minimum.

So how do we get all students to feel it in their bones?

  1. Be patient: There is no dictated timeline for an epiphany. Some students take longer than others. I waited nearly 12 weeks for Zoe to breakthrough, and she did so in a beautiful way. (Her final essay was brilliant — and by far the best writing she had done all semester.)
  2. Provide more affirmations than criticisms: Yes, students need to hear how to improve, for without improvement, growth isn’t happening. However, students also need to feel heard, and affirmations provide a method of listening to them, validating the work they have put in, allowing opportunity to suggest improvements.
  3. Let them talk: I’ve been doing writing conferences since I started teaching, but these past two years have taught me the importance of asking questions. I used to dominate the conference with my list of thoughts on how they can be better while the student idly sat, nodding. But now I ask questions about why and how and for what purpose about student writing. With the student understanding purpose and my understanding their level of knowledge, we can accomplish so much more.
  4. Provide the opportunity for students to fail forward: Writing is subjective. And good writing relies on a strong sense of voice, which can only be developed through taking risks. My students need to experiment with various voice techniques in their writing in order to fail, learn from their mistakes, and decide what defines their writing voice — allowing their failures to turn into growth.
  5. Let growth, not grades, be the focus: My biggest epiphany these past two years is that grades hinder progress in a writing workshop. So instead of putting a grade on the first draft I see (I actually don’t put a letter grade on any drafts), I allow our assessment to be focused on the growth of the student. For isn’t learning what we truly want anyways?

It is my pleasure to walk with students on their writing journeys, on their way to “feeling it in their bones.” I know that I learn as much from them as they do from me, perhaps even more. And it is from them that I find inspiration for my own stories, and it is from them that my writing grows until I, too, feel it in my bones.